Forensic expert uses detective skills to unearth her secret family at 70 – also discovering her beloved granddad was a First World War hero

·5-min read

A forensic document examiner used her detective skills to unearth a brand new family at the age of 70 – also discovering her beloved grandfather had been a hero in the First World War.

Inspired by old family photos given to her by her grandmother in 1966, Sheila Lowe, now 72, who is also a handwriting analyst, found 15 cousins scattered around Europe, who she met-up with during a whistle-stop three week tour, just before the pandemic struck in 2019.

Already thrilled to have found an entire “secret family” she was equally delighted to be told her grandfather, Alfred George Ahrens, had captured three enemy field guns during the Great War – making him a true hero.

Shelia went on a three week tour to meet all her cousins, including visiting Gibraltar with cousins, Carol, Moira and David (Collect/PA Real Life).
Shelia went on a three week tour to meet all her cousins, including visiting Gibraltar with cousins, Carol, Moira and David (Collect/PA Real Life).

Mum-of-three Sheila, who is also a mystery book author, of Ventura, California, USA, who moved from England to America as a child, leaving her grandmother, Elsie Ahrens, behind, said: “My grandfather died in 1963 just before we returned to England when I was 13, having moved to the USA when I was 10.

“My grandparents lived in Essex. Earlier in their lives, my grandmother was a concert pianist and my grandfather was a singer.

“My family first moved to the States when I was 10 and then moved back to England when I was 13 only to leave again.”

Sadie with her grandfather, Alfred (PA Real Life/Collect).
Sadie with her grandfather, Alfred (PA Real Life/Collect).

She added: “I never wanted to go to America. They dragged me kicking and screaming the second time.”

But Sheila never stopped thinking about the family she had left behind and, interested in her heritage, in 2001 she joined the Ancestry website – keen to discover more about them.

To her delight, she found 15 cousins in the UK and Gibraltar and in September 2019 turned a visit to Germany to meet her new grandchild into a three week adventure – meeting as many of them as she could.

Alfred and Elsie Ahrens (Collect/PA Real Life).
Alfred and Elsie Ahrens (Collect/PA Real Life).

“I started looking at Ancestry in 2001,” she said.

“My grandmother had given me a lot of pictures in 1966 and I just started getting interested in doing some formal research.

“I do it in chunks and, going back through my family all the way to the 1700s, I discovered that my ancestors were from Germany.”

Alfred’s medal was shown to Shelia by a cousin during her three week family history tour in 2019 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Alfred’s medal was shown to Shelia by a cousin during her three week family history tour in 2019 (Collect/PA Real Life).

She added: “I’m a handwriting analyst and a forensic document examiner, so I used these skills to look at the documents I found on the site.

“I even studied my grandmother’s handwriting, which was really special, to get a sense of her social status and what she was like.”

Using her £10.99 monthly subscription to the Ancestry site, Sheila started to uncover her grandparents’ history and, thanks to her keen detective skills, she located an array of surviving cousins.

Shelia as a baby with her mum, Vicky and grandfather, Alfred (PA Real Life/Collect).
Shelia as a baby with her mum, Vicky and grandfather, Alfred (PA Real Life/Collect).

“Ancestry put me in touch with my cousins,” she said.

“I got an email from one on the site in early 2019 and it turned out there was a bunch of us. I was shocked to discover this side of my family that I’d never met.

“We started emailing and I learnt so much about my grandparents from them.”

Shelia’s cousins, Joy, Linda, Paul, Sue, Dan, Fred, Jen, Julia and Becky at lunch on Shelia’s tour (Collect/PA Real Life).
Shelia’s cousins, Joy, Linda, Paul, Sue, Dan, Fred, Jen, Julia and Becky at lunch on Shelia’s tour (Collect/PA Real Life).

So, after meeting her grandchild in Frankfurt, Germany, she went on to Gibraltar, the Isle of Wight and London to meet the cousins she had by then heard so much about.

“My granddaughter was born in Germany in September 2019,” she said.

“I went from Germany to the Isle of Wight and then met some more cousins in London. Then we flew from London to Gibraltar together because that’s where our great great grandmother was from on my grandmother’s side.”

Shelia’s grandparents wedding (Collect/PA Real Life).
Shelia’s grandparents wedding (Collect/PA Real Life).

She added: “It was a three week whirlwind tour and I said, ‘This is my last hurrah.’”

Her adventure was even more rewarding when a cousin revealed her grandfather’s outstanding military history.

“I never knew about his heroism until I met my cousins,” she said.

She added: “I have a cousin on the Isle of Wight, her name is Joy. She gave me a little miniature of his medal, which was a complete shock.

“My cousins were able to show me a replica of the medal he won for gallantry in the Great War when he was only 25 years old.

“It was for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’ at Vaux Vraucourt in France on 2 September 1918.”

Sheila pictured with her grandfather, Alfred (PA Real Life/Collect).
Sheila pictured with her grandfather, Alfred (PA Real Life/Collect).

She added: “All his company officers and senior NCOs had been either killed or wounded, so he led the men forwards and at the point of a bayonet captured three enemy field guns, which were defended with stubbornness.

“His gallantry and disregard of danger when facing heavy odds were a very fine example to his men.

“It was amazing to learn how he led his men forwards to capture three enemy field guns after his superiors had been killed.”

Shelia was amazed when she discovered her grandfather won a war medal in World War 1 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Shelia was amazed when she discovered her grandfather won a war medal in World War 1 (Collect/PA Real Life).

Keen to continue her adventure and to make the most of the family she has discovered, Sheila is now even considering a move to Isle of Wight in the future.

She said: “When I went to visit my cousins, I really liked it.

“It would be a big move to do on my own, but it really is beautiful and, obviously, I would know some people out there.”

“At the moment I’m happy where I am, but never say never!”

To learn more about your military family history and access over two billion historic wartime records on Ancestry and to sign up for a 14 day free trial visit https://www.ancestry.co.uk/wartime-stories.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting